India's Congress party backs off nuclear pactNEW DELHI - India's Congress-led federal government has blinked on the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The left-wing coalition partners, who are opposed to the pact and threatened to withdraw support, have had their way and without their support in Parliament the government would have collapsed.
The Indo-US nuclear deal seeks to allow India access to civilian nuclear power technology without having to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Given the unpredictable way that matters have evolved over the nuclear issue over the past, it is still possible that the government may yet make a last ditch charge to seal the deal at international forums such as the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But such a possibility looks very remote.
Last week Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the powerful Congress president Sonia Gandhi assured the nation that the government will last until 2009 and ruled out the possibility of early elections.
Singh, who has been the most vehement supporter of the nuclear deal, said his government is not just about one nuclear issue and that politics is about surviving the short-term battles to achieve long-term goals.
Gandhi said that the government would last its term and will not push the nation into a political crisis over the nuclear stand-off, given other challenges such as confronting India's enormous poverty problem.
There is no doubt though that a lot of thought has gone into the latest Congress maneuver not to push for the deal.
Firstly, responsibility for the failure of the nuclear pact has been shifted onto the left-wing parties who have criticized it primarily with empty anti-US rhetoric.
Their views however are not shared by many of India's middle class and intellectuals, who feel that access to civilian nuclear technology would benefit the country and that India has sufficient resilience to stand up to any superpower to protect its national interests.
As a matter of fact, it is economic and military rivals China and Pakistan who would be the happiest that the deal did not go through, and there is a faint possibility that India's leftwingers will now stop flashing their victory grins and adopt a softer line on the issue, allowing the pact to go through with cosmetic changes.
Secondly, the Congress party did not want to fall into the trap that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) created for itself during the previous elections by going overboard on its "India Shining" campaign, which referred to the economic optimism in India after plentiful rains in 2003 and the success of the Indian IT boom. The slogan was popularized by the then-ruling BJP for the 2004 Indian general elections - which the BJP lost.
Gandhi's focused game plan has been to project herself, the party and the government as a bridge that seeks to help the aam aadmi (common man), her favorite words in political discourse, cross over from poverty.
Thirdly, there is the fear of a Muslim backlash against the Congress due to its pro-US stance. While it is generally felt that trade relations and foreign policy do not impact India's domestic politics, sacrificing the government on a deal that involves the US can have severe repercussions.
Pan-Islamic sentiments can no longer be discounted in India, given Washington's invasion of Iraq and problems with Iran.
Fourthly, beyond its public image, the Congress has calculated that even realpolitik does not dictate the calling of elections at this time. Had the Congress chosen to do so, there is no guarantee of the results and the Congress brains trust seems to have rightly concluded that there is no way that the party would win a majority of seats on its own.
Even if the left parties returned with fewer seats in Parliament, which looks to be the most likely outcome, they would still be a factor in any non-BJP government formation.
Then there is the emerging regional satrap, Mayawati Kumari, the leader of India's low-caste Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh state, who could be even more difficult to handle, with her own prime ministerial aspirations.
The Congress today also relies on the support of regional parties from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Bihar, but there is no assurance that they would win back the seats.
Indeed, in such as scenario, the Congress seems to have decided that it is best to deal with the "known devil" left parties than create a new free-for-all wherein anybody, including the BJP or a left-supported "third front", could take a shot at government formation.
It has happened in the past, in the mid-1990s, as former prime ministers I K Gujral, Deve Gowda and the late Chandra Shekar could have testified. All had the post foisted on them due to desperate political wranglings, and the situation today is no different.
Now the two national parties, Congress and the BJP, are learning that difficult coalition partners with regional agendas are the new order of the day, and they will need to find ways to cajole - not force - new allies.
Such a process has its advantages, as the minor voices need to be heard. But the drawback is that what was once seen as a win-win nuclear deal for India now looks to be lost.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.